Can Rahul save India’s grand old party?

The clamor for change in leadership has grown louder after the 130-year-old Congress party suffered defeat in the recently held state assembly elections in Assam and Kerala. Many supporters and observers fear Congress is on the brink of extinction and only a strong and inspiring leader can save it. While it is said party president Sonia Gandhi may soon make way for her son Rahul, he should take more interest in politics and prove to be a leader with a difference     

Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, India’s most successful political dynasty, seems to be poised to take over the reins of the Congress Party.

Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi

While sections in the party, especially its older leaders, prefer that the presidency remain with Sonia Gandhi, his mother, others believe it is better that the change of guard takes place sooner rather than later.

Still others are wondering whether it is only a Nehru-Gandhi who should lead the party.

Currently the vice-president of the Congress, Rahul has been accused of being uninterested in politics.

Critics blame him for the party’s decline and insist that his poor leadership is helping Prime Minister Narendra Modi in fulfilling his promise of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (a Congress-free India).

The Congress party was defeated in a string of recent elections to state assemblies. Of the four states and one Union Territory that went to the polls, it lost power in Kerala and Assam.

The defeat in Assam would be particularly painful to the party as it was in power there for 15 successive years. It lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its main rival, there.

ant his charismatic sister, Priyanka, to take over the reins.

Many Congress members want Rahul’s sister Priyanka to take over the reins

Congress leaders have pointed to “gains” the party made in the elections. It won elections to the Puducherry assembly and improved on its performance in West Bengal,, they say.

Its vote share in the recent elections increased by 2% from 2014 and it won 44 seats to emerge as the second largest party in the state, they argue.

However, this is cold comfort.

Puducherry is a tiny Union Territory and in West Bengal, the Congress trailed far behind the victor, the Trinamool Congress, which claimed 211 of the 294 seats.

The 130-year-old Indian National Congress led India to freedom from colonial rule. For four decades after independence in 1947, it dominated Indian politics and only in 1977 it was voted out of power at the national level for the first time.

In recent decades, its stints in power have been as part of coalitions. In May 2014, it suffered its worst defeat ever; it now holds just 44 seats in India’s lower house of parliament.

The string of electoral defeats over the last couple of years has raised questions about its future.  Is the Congress in a state of terminal decline? Is it on the brink of extinction?

Two years after its worst performance ever in parliamentary elections, the party is showing few signs of recovery.

There is no doubt that the Congress’s fortunes are on a precipitous decline.  Three years ago, it headed the national government and ruled in 13 of India’s 29 states. Today, not only does it sit in the opposition in the national parliament but it rules in just six states. Except for Karnataka, the other states are minor. Just 7% of India’s 1.3 billion people live in states ruled by the Congress on its own or in a coalition.

The Congress, whose writ once ran across the length and breadth of India, is now a regional outfit, ruling in a few small pockets in the country. Indeed, the BJP is India’s only “national party” today.

A couple of decades ago, when the Congress’ relevance in electorally crucial states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was beginning to decline, party leaders would debate whether it should “go it alone in elections” or contest as part of a coalition.

Today, nothing seems to work. In Assam, it contested alone and was defeated. In Tamil Nadu, it was in the fray as a junior partner of a coalition and even that failed to propel it to power.

Can Rahul improve the party’s prospects?

His father, grandmother and great grandfather were prime ministers. In terms of political pedigree, it could not get better. The problem is he has not been able to draw votes.

Analysts are pointing out that a Congress revival hinges on Rahul stepping aside. Many in the party want his charismatic sister, Priyanka, to take over the reins.  Still others want an end to the Nehru-Gandhi family’s control of the Congress party.

However, it is the Nehru-Gandhis who hold the party together and are perhaps its best vote catchers.

Even the dismal performance in the 2014 general election did not prompt the Congress leadership to undertake organizational and other reforms it so badly needs.

The party has now decided to seek the services of political strategist Prashant Kishor, who scripted the BJP’s victorious election campaign in 2014 and orchestrated the successful campaign of the anti-BJP ‘Grand Alliance’ in Bihar last year.

Devoid of ideas, a desperate Congress is hoping that he will work his magic to improve its performance in elections to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh next year.

Elections are due next year in seven states. Uttar Pradesh, which is politically the most crucial, is a difficult terrain for the Congress to plot its comeback. It has been out of power in this state for 27 years.

And unlike its main rivals, the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, which can count on the votes of particular caste or social groups, the Congress lacks a ‘vote bank’ here.

Wooing Brahmin voters

Kishor is said to be in favor of the Congress wooing the Brahmin vote in the state. Brahmins constitute roughly 12% of Uttar Pradesh’s population but in several constituencies they comprise over 20% of the electorate and could determine the outcome of an election.

The Brahmins were once strong supporters of the Congress. But they shifted loyalties to the BJP subsequently. That support has been declining steadily in recent years.

Kishor is hoping to win back their support for the Congress. He has suggested that the party announce a Brahmin as its chief ministerial candidate for the 2017 election.

Wooing the Brahmin vote in Uttar Pradesh is a high-risk gamble for the Congress. It could provide the beleaguered party with a breakthrough, one that could enable it to put up a credible challenge in general elections 2019.  But it could boomerang, proving the last nail in the party’s coffin, Congress critics say.

It is still too early to write off the Congress; it has risen from crushing defeats in the past. Much depends on how Rahul decides to steer the party through a very difficult period.

He will need to set an inspiring agenda for India. He will need to prove that he is a leader with a difference. He could, for instance, apologize for his party’s role in the 1975 Emergency and the 1983 anti-Sikh pogrom. That would put Modi and the BJP on the defensive, as they are unlikely to apologize or even admit to their orchestrating of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 and several other incidents of mass communal violence.

Apologizing for past mistakes may not win Rahul and the Congress future elections but it could provide his leadership with a shot in the arm.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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